LINCOLN — Nebraska linebackers coach Ross Els last year watched UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley from the Rose Bowl press box instead of the sideline.
But he, like other NU coaches, got a front row's worth of heartburn that night — and worries for this Saturday morning, when the Bruins and their 6-foot-3, 225-pound signal-caller roll into Memorial Stadium.
“He's a pain in the neck,” Els said of Hundley, a redshirt sophomore who's among the top NFL quarterback prospects over the next several years. “He's one of these guys who's just hard to tackle for some reason. I don't think he's fast, but he's fast enough. I don't think he's a great thrower, but he can put the ball in there whenever he needs to. And he's hard to bring down. He just stays alive.”
To the tune of 358 total yards and four touchdowns against NU last year. With quick passes, savvy scrambles and smart reads, Hundley kept the chains moving and UCLA churning yards and eating clock in a 36-30 win.
“He's efficient,” NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “He doesn't make a lot of bad decisions with the ball.”
How efficient? In his 45 combined carries and passes that night, Hundley averaged 7.9 yards per attempt — one of the best opposing quarterback performances against a Husker defense in the Bo Pelini era. Attempts are a better measurement of efficiency because they count incompletions. Throw in four touchdowns and zero turnovers, and Hundley's game has Husker players' full attention.
“He's a very good quarterback,” NU defensive back Ciante Evans said. “He is probably up there in the top two if not one. He's mobile. Very good passer. He's accurate and can do a lot of great things. We just need to corral him and get some pressure on him.”
Who did Evans rank ahead of Hundley? Ohio State's Braxton Miller. And for good reason: Among the mobile quarterbacks who have supposedly given Pelini's defenses the most heartache over the years, Miller towers above them all, averaging 10.4 yards per attempt over two games. Compare that to Michigan's Denard Robinson, who averaged 5.8 yards, or even Wyoming's Brett Smith, who averaged 7.4.
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Miller and Hundley are among the most efficient headliner quarterbacks against Nebraska's defense since 2008. And Pelini and Co. have had plenty of practice against headliner quarterbacks.
In the opening weekend of the NFL season, eight of the league's starting quarterbacks — Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, Blaine Gabbert, Robert Griffin III, Jake Locker, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden and Russell Wilson — had faced Nebraska's defense since Pelini arrived in 2008. Many more NFL backups — including former Texas quarterback and Cleveland Browns starter Colt McCoy — have also faced the Huskers in the last five years. They've come in all sizes with different skill sets and experience levels.
“We've faced some good quarterbacks,” Papuchis said in an understatement. “The Big 12 was a good quarterback league. Out-of-conference — whether it was Jake Locker or Brett Hundley or Tyrod Taylor at Virginia Tech — we've faced some pretty good players. So we're able to draw on all that experience to help us prepare this week. I like our plan.”
Els said Hundley knows the plan of UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone equally well.
“Very intelligent quarterback,” Els said. “He knows defenses. He knows what their motions will do and where to go with it. He's very well-taught. It's an impressive show.”
One Nebraska hopes will be a little less impressive in 2013.
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• Video: See Coach Bo Pelini address the media following Thursday's practice: